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עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

וַיִּשְׁלַח Two Jews – Three Opinions (even in halachic matters)

Posted by rabbiart on December 3, 2009

There is probably not a post Bar/Bat Mitzvah who has not heard some variation of the phrase “two Jews, three opinions.”  We’re all familiar with the phenomenon, and often we find it difficult to agree even with ourselves.   This week’s parshah provides ample evidence that even among halachic authorities there are multiple opinions and rulings, just as there are multiple practices among the Jewish people.The story begins with Yakov wrestling with a man who is commonly understood to be an angel. They wrestle through the night, and as the day breaks the angel man is unable to prevail.  so he touches the hollow of Yakov’s thigh to weaken him. (Aha, the first hamstring strain in the Torah!) Yakov demands and receives his new name – Israel – and for once, receives a blessing without deception or negotiation.  As Yakov resumes his journey, he limps because of the strain in his leg.  Therefore, we are told, Israelites do not eat the gid hanasheh (sinew of the thigh vein) “even to this day.” (What ho! the voice of the narrator is heard).  This particular kashrut related mitzvah is described and therefore given, before the general mitzvot relating to kashrut are established.

To avoid eating the gid hanasheh some communities avoid eating the entire hindquarter, others perform a practice called “porging” to remove the gid hanasheh so the hindquarter can in fact be eaten. We often hear that Ashkenazim follow this practice, while Sephardim remove the offending sinew, but consume the rest of the hindquarter.

According to the Orthodox Union kosher website the division is not that simple.  There is no rabbinic ban on making the hindquarter fit to eat by removing the gid hanasheh. Rabbi and Doctor Ari Zivotofsky gives a fascinating digest of the various rabbinic opinions and community practices.  Sixteenth century and later rabbis differ on whether there is a prohibition against consuming the hindquarter, and what rabbinic authority may have a established a custom that “Godfearing people refrain from eating hindquarters.”  Depending on what authorities are followed, the hindquarter is prohibited, or it is not. But in practice, as it turns out, the basic reason to forego consuming the hindquarter is that there may be – in a given community – a lack of the necessary skill to properly prepare it.

So is it somehow “better” or “more observant” for (kosher keeping) Jews to avoid the hindquarter?  Would this be a good “fence around the Torah?” Is the halachah fixed on this particular question, and can we see in this case whether or not the halahach can change?  Rabbinic authorities differ on eating the hindquarter, as do community practices.  Market and financial considerations come into play as well.  As R. Zivotofsky relates, English consumers were not happy with the appearance of properly prepared hindquarters, so kosher butchers were drawn to sell hindquarters that had not been “porged.”

If hindquarter meat cannot be sold to Jews, what happens to it?  Generally, the practice was to sell this part of the animal to non-Jews who were of course not concerned with the laws of kashrut.  But in Poland, where the practice of porging had lapsed, a particular historical condition brought about the resumption of consuming.  In 1938 Poland prohibited the sale of kosher-slaughtered meat to non-Jews.  Rabbinic courts immediately ruled that porging should be re-introduced and that the hindquarter should be consumed.  This was complete in response to market conditions created by the legal prohibition; kosher butchers would be at a financial loss if the hindquarter could be sold to neither Jews nor non-Jews.  No text in the Torah or Talmud changed, no old halachic ruling was discovered.  Simply put, market conditions changed, so the halachah was changed in response.

What might we learn from the halachah of gid hanasheh?

It is easy to get lost in all the details of disputes and interpretations reported on by R. Zivotofsky, and that’s before we look up all the footnotes. More interesting is that there is no disputing that the halachah on this point is not unanimous, and that the halachah can and does respond to changes in community conditions and even the level of knowledge or skill in a certain practice.  Anyone who thinks that “halachah is fixed, outmoded and cannot change” should take another look at the halachah.  And anyone who makes halachah without carefully considering community practices and market condtions should take another look at the impact of halachic decisions on ordinary people.

After all, kol yisrael aravim zeh lazeh, and all of us are responsible for building klal yisrael into a unified entity.

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